Edwards’s lawyer past is a plus

By Ben Walsh

It was bound to happen. As soon as John Edwards joined the ranks of Democratic presidential hopefuls, most media outlets introduced him to the American public as the junior senator from North Carolina and a former trial lawyer. Both statements are true, but in the past, Republican opponents have tried to use Edwards’s previous profession against him and appear to be gearing up to do so again.

The first to use this technique was then Senator Lauch Faircloth. In his 1998 senatorial campaign against Edwards, Faircloth spent millions of dollars on television ads that demonized his opponent’s profession and character. But it didn’t work. It didn’t work despite polls showing that as many as three out of four Americans dislike lawyers. Lacking any real momentum or issue to exploit, Faircloth ran an ad showing a picture of Edwards next to former president Bill Clinton and called both men “tobacco-taxing liberal lawyers who are well known for stretching the truth.” This would seem to have played well in a tobacco-dependent state that has sent hard-line Jesse Helms to Washington for decades. Instead, Faircloth’s move reeked of desperation and dishonesty because it so distorted the reality of the record. When Election Day came, North Carolinians voted against the one truly sleazy politician in the race, Faircloth himself. Instead, they chose Edwards, who demonstrated he was willing to be an advocate for average North Carolinians.

John Edwards did in fact work as a personal injury lawyer for 16 years. But he never took the kind of cases people detest the most, never played into the stereotype of a domineering and pompous mercenary who leaves integrity behind in a quest for vanity. Edwards took cases that demonstrate the law’s profound capacity to function on behalf of ordinary citizens. Several of his cases involved medical malpractice that led to severe, lifelong complications requiring expensive and extended medical care. Edwards’s most famous case came when he represented the family of Valerie Lake, a young girl who was injured by a poorly designed pool drain. The drain, produced by Sta-Right Industries, ruptured a large portion of her intestines when she was pulled in and caught by the suction it produced. The company initially offered to settle for $100,000, despite Lake’s narrowly surviving and needing to spend 12 hours every day attached to feeding tubes. The jury in the case returned a $25 million verdict against the company. The company settled for this amount rather than face Edwards again in court during the punitive stage of the trial, where damages could have increased further.

For this reason, any Republican ought to be wary of attacking Edwards in the same manner Faircloth did because doing so will invite attention to his party’s most glaring weakness. It would give Edwards a chance to highlight the often unseemly ties between Republicans, HMOs, insurance companies, and other large interests. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that in a post-Enron and pre-economic recovery environment, voters are sympathetic to a candidate who can passionately and clearly defend the interests of ordinary Americans. Polls already show that voters see the Bush administration as too closely tied to large corporate interests that run contrary to their own. But Republicans will probably attack Edwards as Faircloth did anyway, because they are blinded by ideology and beholden to special interests that can’t stomach the idea of accountability. Edwards’s past experience gives him the opportunity to exploit this weakness and back up his desire to run in support of regular people with a compelling life story.

Beyond authenticity, his legal experience gives clear indication that Edwards has the skills needed to run for the presidency. Arguably, the two most important venues for a primary contender are crowded debates (there are now six declared Democrats in the race) and intensely personal meetings in living rooms, high schools, coffee shops and diners, both of which uniquely suit Edwards. First, he has the ability to reduce a complicated set of issues to a few sentences that clearly articulate his values and position without sounding condescending. Second, he has the ability to bond and establish trust with people he has just met. John Edwards honed both these skills by spending years in front of juries. These skills will be his greatest assets as he enters the first debate in Iowa or the hundredth meet-and-greet in a New Hampshire home. Many will dismiss Edwards as a feel-good lightweight, but ask those he went up against in court if they’d like to do it again. I suspect they wouldn’t. Give the other Democratic candidates a few months on the campaign trial competing against him, and they may feel the same way.